Unhappy with a voter initiative, the state’s top Republican politicians are crafting their own alternative to a plan for open primaries.
Matthew Benson, press aide to Gov. Jan Brewer, said his boss is concerned that the measure filed Thursday would allow candidates to hide their true party affiliation. He said that could give a leg up to Democrats in heavily Republican areas, where many voters cast their ballots based largely on a candidate’s party.
Their alternative would keep in place the proposal to have all candidates run against each other in an open primary. Then the top two finishers would face off in the general election, regardless of party affiliation.
What would be different, though, is candidates would be legally required to list their party registration on the ballot.
A special session of the Republican-controlled Legislature is being planned for this coming week to put the issue on the November ballot. There, it would compete with the initiative which lacks such a requirement.
Former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson said Brewer and the Republicans are wrong.
He said the initiative already requires the ballot to list how a candidate is registered. The only time that would not be listed, Johnson said, is if the person is registered as an independent.
But whether or not that is the case, Johnson said one thing is true.
“This is about trying to split the public vote so that both measures don’t get 50 percent” and are defeated, he said.
Nothing would preclude people from voting for both measures. And if both were to pass, the version with more votes would take effect.
But when previous multiple versions of a measure have been on the same ballot, some voters apparently pick one over the other. And in some cases, like measure to create a state holiday to honor slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., both went down to defeat.
Benson conceded that Brewer might not support even the alternative she is now pushing to put before voters. But he said this is not a deliberate attempt by her, in concert with House Speaker Andy Tobin and Senate President Steve Pierce, to confuse voters.
“This is corrupt,” Johnson said. “This is all about closed government, doing things in secret, trying to trick the voters, trying to make certain they hold on to their insider status so that they and their cronies can continue doing the things that they’re doing.”
The disputed language says that, under the new system, every candidate “shall have the choice to declare his or her party preference (if any) shall appear on the candidate’s nomination petitions and on the primary and general election ballots.”
It also says, though, that “if no party preference is stated on a candidate’s voter registration form, then no designation shall appear on the nomination petitions or ballot with the candidate’s name.”
Johnson said even if Brewer and her allies are correct about party listing being optional -- a point he is not conceding -- he finds their new-found interest in the issue suspicious.
He said efforts were made to open a dialog with lawmakers last year to get them to put the issue before voters, short-circuiting the need to spend money gathering signatures. And the petitions have been on the streets since last September.
But Johnson said the Republican-controlled Legislature had “no interest in reform” of the existing process until members of his group turned in more than 364,000 signatures on Thursday.
Johnson said the whole purpose behind the initiative is to alter the process where members of each party get to nominate their own candidates, a process he said results in nominees who represent the extremes. By having to appeal to voters across party lines, even in the primary, Johnson said that will give an edge to those who espouse more moderate views.
Benson said Brewer finds nothing wrong with the current system.
“She is a long-time registered Republican, she’s a party person,” he said. “As a Republican and as a former secretary of state, she believes in the party process and the primaries that Arizona has in place.”
He called the alternative “a transparency measure to make certain that candidates are honest about their parties.”
And Benson said there’s nothing wrong with people choosing their candidates based on party registration.
“Anybody who spends five minutes at the state Capitol understands that this is partisan place and that’s not a bad thing,” he said.
“This is a system by which things get done in the state of Arizona,” Benson continued. “Elected officials get together with people of like minds and work to achieve things for the state.”
Johnson, who ran for governor in 1998 as a Democrat but now is registered as an independent, said it’s precisely that sort of division which results in an inability to compromise across party lines to get things done. Benson, however, was unapologetic for that.
“The system was set up intentionally to move slowly,” he said. “It’s a system of checks and balances intended to ensure that we don’t have drastic change that upsets the apple cart.”
Benson said the reason there needs to be a mandate for candidates to list party affiliation is because many Arizonans use that as a guide on how to vote. He said any system that allows a candidate to avoid disclosing that affiliation is wrong.
“That party label says a lot about a person,” Benson said. “It identifies what their values are, what their morals, their governing philosophy (is), what lawmakers they would align with once elected.”